Walkley Innovation Fund: What kind of projects are we looking for?

Since we launched the 2017 innovation grants program, the most common questions I’ve been fielding are all variations on the same theme: “What kind of ideas are you looking for?” or “Does my idea have a shot?” or “How do I boost my chances at winning the grant?”.

These questions have been so frequent I’ve decided to share a detailed answer here so everyone can understand what we’re looking for, and why we run the program. This year we have overhauled the program significantly from a one-workshop grant program to an incubator model.

This shift enables us to train and empower as many teams as possible, hopefully extending the number of new ventures launched or supported, from the 20 or so who attend the in-person workshop in past years to the 30 to 50 that will graduate from the incubator program.

(Ready to apply? You can do so here. Entries close Thursday 6 April at 5pm AEST.)

So, how do you get in the top 30 or so to enter the training program and get a shot at funding?

The shortlist and grant winners are chosen by a panel of four judges: James Kirby, Jacqui Park, Niki Scevak and Ramin Marzbani. Each has a different background and a slightly different perspective or interest in the program. I spoke to each to gather their thoughts about the program and the kind of projects they’re seeking.

James Kirby, who cofounded the Eureka Report and is an editor at The Australian sums up the program’s goal this way:

“Ultimately, what we are looking for in the grants program are start-ups that can flourish in today’s multi-platform media environment. Our most successful applicants have not just brought a smart idea to the table, they have been able to plan and execute a strategy that creates a new business and puts jobs back into our industry.”

This is a good broad summary of the program. But we’re not just interested in launched startups or new ventures (which can be non-profit). We’re also seeking promising ideas and journalism tools. Walkley Foundation CEO Jacqui Park launched the program back in 2014 because of inescapable fact: journalism has weathered incredible disruption, sustained considerable damage and needs reinvigoration and fresh thinking.

“We’re always guided by whether there is value to journalism in each project,” Jacqui says. “That value could be a new tool, or venture or model for journalism or even just experiments in revenue or distribution models. In many ways, the act of experimentation is almost as important as outcome itself, as those experiments will inform the future of the media industry.”

Unfortunately the disruption of the media over the last decade or two has made it harder to take creative risks while it was making experimentation critical to our news industry’s survival. This is part of why we launched this program: to support those brave enough to try.

Last year, Nick Chesterfield won $15,000 for Project FiveARM, which aims to help first responders and journalists collect high-quality witness accounts in disaster areas orconflict zones.

There are very few rules

With such a free-wheeling raison d’être, the Walkleys Innovation Fund has very few rules as to what kind of projects fit in this program because let’s be honest — no one really knows what the future of media will look like.

We could set a bunch of rules. But we would be constantly be shifting them because it’s likely some of the most useful ideas are going to come from the edges of the industry or our definitions of news and media.

This is one of the reasons why our newest judge, Niki Scevak, who runs Blackbird Ventures, is keen to support weirder ideas that produce journalistic outcomes, rather than traditionally journalistic models.

“I’m looking forward to fresh and strange ideas around the essence of journalism: telling the truth to society. To help governments run in an open and transparent way. To help and inspire people to become great citizens,” Niki says.

“Software, crowdfunding, the Internet’s ability to build community and many other areas offer the canvas for great journalism entrepreneurs to go and build the great solutions of tomorrow. On the flip side, I’m not so interested in helping to photocopy old media ideas on to the Internet.”

So we’re open to tools or new ventures that are journalistic, media and entertainment or even content-driven projects in the civic engagement or democracy space.

So yes, your idea or project can be pretty much anything, including:

  • A tool for journalists to use in their news gathering and writing.
  • An audience engagement tool or venture. (Here are some great projects from our recent hackathon on this theme.)
  • A project that empowers people who aren’t journalists to source, share, analyse and contribute to news or civic engagement processes.
  • A project that tackles fake news. In partnership with our main program sponsor Google, the Walkleys has set aside between $10,000 to $15,000 for a project that tackles fake news. Here is a good report of a hackathon around fake news to get you thinking.
  • A non-profit or open-source project — it does not need to make money to be an exceptional candidate for a grant.
  • An open-source project — that can be used by anyone who has a need for it.
  • A project that’s more entertainment, content or arts play than news journalism.
  • A stand-alone storytelling experiment (or even better, a series of these) that is genuinely experimental and innovative.
  • A community engagement tool, or a storytelling tool that isn’t necessarily targeting journalists.
  • A new site or venture catering to underserved audiences in distinct, community-appropriate ways.
  • A storytelling or community project around the key goals or outcomes of journalism.
  • A project led by people with little to no experience in journalism — or by working journalists/media professionals. Please keep in mind it needs to be an independent project (more details below).
  • An innovative spin-off of your core work, such as an experimental program or platform launched by a small independent site or company. (This needs to clearly be a new project, not a continuation or rebadging of your existing services.)
  • A perhaps more traditional news/content site or venture that experiments with business models or distribution models.
  • Pretty much anything that explores new distribution or revenue streams for content. (Yes, we know content isn’t journalism, but what you learn could be invaluable to the wider news industry.)

There are a handful of things your idea can’t be:

  • Continuation or growth funding for a project that has been running for more than three years.
  • An in-house project for a large, established media company such as the ABC, News Corp or the Guardian. We want to support internal innovation in our agenda-setting news companies (and have some really exciting plans around that) but this is not the program for it. Reporters at these organisations can enter independent projects. In previous years we have had finalists from the ABC, Fairfax Media, SBS and The Guardian.

Does my project need to be launched? Can it still be just an idea?

The good news is it can be either.

If your project is still at the idea stage, we recommend you find ways to validate it in your entry application — for instance with data, surveys of target users or detailed conversations with target users. The incubator program, which will be led by Alan Jones (not the radio one) of BlueChilli and the mentors for our longlisted projects, will delve into how to test your idea and plans so that you can ensure you’re a) solving a real problem and b) on the right track with a solution that actually works and that people want to use.

And keep in mind, projects do not need to be slick and flawless.

“Scrappy projects are fine,” Jacqui says. “Of course we hope we are seeding the next generation of successful media ventures but we need to recognise we are at a stage where we are still figuring out what works, and will be for a while.”

“What I really I want to see is that people really understand the problem they are trying to solve, and recognise their initial solution to the problem will almost certainly need to evolve. It’s also important for me to be able to see they have designed a solution that puts the user first. It needs to be genuinely something useful and enjoyable for the target user.”

Are you looking for technical innovation? How important is the technology element of the project?

Genuinely technically adept teams have been a minority in the program so far, although last year two tech-driven projects were awarded funding.

Ramin, a technology analyst and investor, says the program has always wrestled with comparing the value and potential of content/storytelling innovations and technological innovation.

“There is not a lot of hardcore technological innovation being had through this process, as they generally find their own backers outside of the Walkleys’ process and timeline,” Ramin says.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Over the last few years the word “innovation” has become increasingly synonymous with technology, but the most powerful innovative ideas deal with the fundamentals of being human.

Moreover, the overarching goals of the Walkleys incubator and fund strategy has always been about working with news breakers and storytellers, both directly and through an ongoing conversation about new skills, opportunities and avenues.

“We are seeing innovation fostered in Australia relating to journalism challenges in our region, which is a long way away from say the challenges faced by first world journalism, especially as all parties are gaming the innovation-driven online and social media.”

Given our grants are fairly small compared to tech startup investment, we’re not expecting to see complex artificial intelligence or machine learning for journalism projects. Although we’d love to — many of our grant recipients say the backing of the Walkleys and our introductions have been as valuable as the funds if not more so.

“The question generally becomes what type of technological innovations can have the most impact. (The PNG mobile journalism verification application last year was beyond awesome.) So mobile-related stuff would work,” Ramin says.

Many applicants have emailed into the Walkleys to get some feedback on their idea, and how to make their application stronger. We’ve included many of the answers we share above, but you can always reach out for feedback specific to your project and application, either via email: rose.powell [at] walkleys.com or on Twitter (open DMs).

You can enter your project/idea in Walkleys Media Incubator and Innovation Fund here. Applications close on 6 April, 2017 (Sydney time).

You can sign up to receive updates about the 2018 project here.

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